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NEWS ANALYSIS

On contraceptive issue, bishops wrest win after string of setbacks

Obama's modification of the mandate for contraceptive coverage comes after years of setbacks for Catholic bishops at the state and federal level.

February 11, 2012|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • Loyola Marymount University, like many large Catholic employers in California and elsewhere, already provides birth control coverage to its employees.
Loyola Marymount University, like many large Catholic employers in California… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Loyola Marymount University is a proudly Roman Catholic institution that might be expected to take a special interest in the bitter debate over federal rules requiring contraceptives to be covered by health care plans at religiously affiliated organizations.

No doubt, many members of the LMU community did follow the issue closely. But they had no practical stake in the outcome. Like many large Catholic employers in California and elsewhere, Loyola Marymount already provided birth control coverage to its employees, as required for the past 12 years under state law.

It is too early to tell whether President Obama ended the debate over the contraceptive mandate Friday by announcing that the federal department of Health and Human Services would require insurance companies, not employers, to pay for the disputed coverage. What is clear is that the nation's Catholic bishops wrested at least a partial victory from the administration after years of setbacks at both the state and federal level.

"It's just one case after another after another where the government is coming in and saying you have to do things that are contrary to your conscience," said Fr. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who is a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center.

Many civil libertarians, women's health advocates and liberal religious leaders would take issue with Reese's description. But he was expressing a viewpoint that resonates with many Catholics, liberals and conservatives, as well as with Protestant conservatives who see the Obama administration as hostile to people of faith.

Last fall, the administration cut funding to the Catholic bishops' campaign against human trafficking, reportedly because it didn't provide contraception and abortion services to clients. Over the past six years, the church has closed adoption agencies in Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., rather than abide by local rules forbidding discrimination against same-sex couples.

In choosing to wage its high-profile campaign against the mandate on contraception coverage, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was revisiting a battle it had largely lost at the state level and in court. Twenty-eight states have some form of mandate for contraception in health insurance policies, with a range of rules regarding exemptions for religious institutions.

Some states, such as California, use similar language as the new federal rule, only granting exemptions to institutions that primarily employ and serve people of the same faith, and whose primary mission is to inculcate faith. That has led to an outcry, particularly from Catholics, who say they put their faith into practice by reaching out to other people, regardless of faith, through hospitals, schools and social service agencies.

"It's not the role of government to define what is or is not a religious institution," said Lori Dangberg, vice president of the Alliance of Catholic Health Care, an association of Catholic hospitals in California.

For the purposes of the health insurance mandate, California, along with a number of other states, has largely restricted the religious exemption to actual churches and church administrations, such as Catholic dioceses. Most hospitals, schools and charitable organizations have had to comply with the law, although some have used a loophole that allowed them to either self-insure or not provide drug coverage at all.

There appears to be no reliable accounting of which Catholic institutions provide contraceptive coverage. But officials at both LMU and Santa Clara University say they provide such coverage, as do the hospitals run by Dignity, formerly Catholic Healthcare West. So too do St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, St. Vincent's Hospital in downtown Los Angeles, and St. Mary's Hospital in Apple Valley, according to Jill Furillo of the California Nurses Association, which represents employees at all three.

"It's never come up in the bargaining that they would want to remove this benefit," she said. "If it had, we would oppose that. ... Many of our members use the benefit."

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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